Photographer Thomas R. Schiff’s obsession with libraries began over 20 years ago. “I became fascinated by how the history of the United States is reflected in our civic buildings; how the great old libraries on the East Coast, of two centuries ago, evolved into dynamic, contemporary public spaces like the Seattle Public Library, or the Salt Lake City library,” he writes in The Library Book (Aperture, 2017), a new monograph featuring panoramic images of over 100 American libraries. “The interest for me is in the arc of history.”
The first truly public library in the United States opened in 1790. After a Massachusetts town named itself after Benjamin Franklin to honor the statesman, he gifted a portion of his personal collection as an expression of gratitude. The city decided to lend the books free of charge. Prior to that, they were mostly the domain of wealthy individuals and they were privately owned collections. Some, like the Library Company of Philadelphia, were accessible through paid memberships. In the 1800s, industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie spent $60 million to open over 1,600 public libraries across the country.
“If readers’ private libraries are symbols of their private identities, the public libraries of the society in which they live symbolize the communal one,” Alberto Manguel, a Canadian essayist and bibliophile, writes in the book’s introduction. “A public library is the memory, the voice, and the face of the society that houses it.”
To Schiff, libraries’ symbolic role as temples of public education and freedom of thought is their real allure. And the architecture of libraries often reflects that. They often have dramatic reading rooms, ornate embellishments, and inspire a sense of awe. They’re the modern cathedral. Cities and public institutions commissioned famous architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Gordon Bunschaft, Louis Kahn, Harry Weese, Frank Gehry, and Rem Koolhaas–the same architects who design lavish houses, multi-million-dollar museums, and towering skyscrapers–to design their libraries. The key difference is that these designs were always intended for public use.
“It’s an interesting question as to whether the civic statements some of these buildings make are more important than the books they have on their shelves,” Schiff writes. “A library is invariably a statement: a realization of the prevailing or forward-looking civic ideals, by the architect, the philanthropist, the community. Libraries are also about improving people. They argue how a refined, methodical, and regulated path might improve us, and improve life in America. Libraries are places of rules and codes and systems. They advertise that you may free yourself and better yourself by honoring a set of codes and observances.”
Libraries empower the public by providing access to knowledge. And the more you know, the better equipped you are to navigate the complexities of the modern world–the rule of law, economic systems, history, international cultures. They embody the democratic ideal, especially now that they’ve evolved from book repositories to social hubs.
Schiff’s love letter to libraries comes at a pivotal time. In its proposed 2018 budget, the Trump Administration suggested eliminating the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a $230 million agency that finds libraries and museums across the country. Considering the administration’s track record of prioritizing business interests and defense, it’s not a surprise that it doesn’t think public libraries are worth funding.
In a statement about the administration’s proposed cuts to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the American Library Association said: “Libraries leverage the tiny amount of federal funds they receive through their states into an incredible range of services for virtually all Americans everywhere to produce what could well be the highest economic and social ‘ROI’ in the entire federal budget.”
It would be a shame if we slip back to a time where libraries return to private hands or are eliminated outright because the government can’t see why they’re worth keeping.